Virtual Classroom Visits

Virtual Classroom Visits (available upon request)

Instructors: Dot Porter and Nicholas Herman

Are you a medievalist or early modernist? Are you a library science instructor who teaches history of the book? Do you teach history of science or mathematics? Do you ever wish that you had access to primary sources, manuscripts and printed books, to illustrate concepts covered in your classes?

You may be interested in a service from the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries. In Spring 2016 we began offering Virtual Classroom Visits, featuring manuscripts and early printed books from our collections, and knowledgable curators to introduce the items.

What is a Virtual Classroom Visit?

During a Virtual Classroom Visit, a curator at Penn will display and interact with books from our collection, while you and your class watches and asks questions via a video feed. We have a camera installed in the ceiling of our lab. The camera has a USB connection that makes it possible to connect it to a laptop and share the camera view via Skype or Google Hangout. You would need to have a computer with Skype or Google Hangout installed, and an account on either of those programs. You would also need a large monitor or projector. You wouldn’t need a camera on your end.

View through the ceiling camera.
View through the ceiling camera.

What kind of books might I show my class?

At Penn, we have a pretty good collection of medieval and renaissance manuscripts. Many of them are in Latin, and include a few Books of Hours, some Bibles, plus a small number of books in Middle English (including a Wycliffite Bible). We also have a very strong collection of secular books – medicine, philosophy, mathematics, astrology, astronomy, and many more – mostly later medieval and early modern, some non-Western. We also have a collection of incunabula, and many other collections of early printed books. To find out more about what manuscripts we have, click some of the links above or search and browse Penn in Hand (most of our manuscripts are digitized). For early printed books, search our online public access catalog, Franklin (this link specifies as the location “Rare Book and Manuscript Library – Rare Book Collection” – you can browse from there).

Why should we have a Virtual Classroom Visit, rather than visiting books in our library or viewing scanned books online?

If your library owns items relevant to your class, you need to take your class to the library! Your librarians will be happy to see you, and there is nothing that compares to the experience of a rare book in real life. For the same reason, if you don’t have access to books at your own library, while it’s not the same as viewing books in real life a Virtual Classroom Visit provides an object-centered view of the book that doesn’t come across in still images. While the resolution of the streaming video isn’t high (so it might be difficult to make out text, especially if it’s quite small), you can really get a sense of the size and “heft” of books, see how they move, even hear them, all things that are more or less obscured by digitization.

Sounds interesting. How do I find out more?

If you are interested in the possibility of a Virtual Classroom Visit, now or on the future, please email curators Dot Porter ( or Nick Herman ( We look forward to visiting with your class soon!

Read about the experience that Megan Cook at Colby College had with a Virtual Classroom Visit in 2017.